Libby in transition
The EPA is leaving and taking its money with it; now, residents must face life post-environmental disaster
Written by Zachariah Bryan
Photo by Katy Spence - Nearly two decades after the mine closed, asbestos still haunts Libby, Montana.
In preparation for reporting on the ongoing recovery efforts in Japan post 3/11, University of
Montana journalism students made their way to Libby, where they reported on how the community has recovered from asbestos contamination.
While the scale of disaster is different, there are many similarities between what is currently happening in the Fukushima Prefecture and what happened in Libby. Both are dealing with contaminants (radiation and asbestos) that are invisible and odorless, and which over time can present life-threatening health problems in residents. They both have gone through large-scale cleanup efforts of residential and commercial properties, dealing with questions of what to do with waste and when it can be called safe. And both, as a result of the cleanup efforts, have seen a surge of investment and workers.
In the case of Libby, this investment is about to dry up and the community, which has already seen the lumber and mining industries leave, is figuring out what comes next. Zachariah Bryan reports.
Sitting at the dinner table in her house along the Kootenai River, Gayla Benefield can tell the tale as if it just happened last year.
How she took care of her parents as they were sickened from asbestosis, a scarring of lung tissue that makes people more susceptible to cancer. How she fought against W.R. Grace, which owned the vermiculite mine that exposed the town of Libby to asbestos. How she met Seattle Post-Intelligencer Andrew Schneider and worked with him on a story that would draw attention from all over the world.
And in days following the story’s publication in Nov., 1999, how people blamed her for sudden losses in business.
“A guy from the Ford Motor Sales and an attorney in town were going to sue me because I ruined their business within three weeks of the story breaking,” she said, throwing her arms up in the air.
She said people blamed her for everything, from the real estate downturn to the lumber mill closing. These days, she just shrugs at the accusations.
“It’s really odd because nothing has changed in Libby (as a result of the asbestos publicity), except for $500 million getting dumped into it,” she said.
As Lincoln County Asbestos Resource Control Manager Nick Raines put it, the asbestos cleanup has been a “double-edged sword” for Libby. On one end, Schneider’s investigation into deaths caused by asbestos thrust Libby into the national spotlight, marking it as a dangerous place to live and creating a long-lasting stigma. On the other hand, the EPA has invested $550 million and hired a lot of workers in order to clean up asbestos, helping buoy the community.
Now, that money is about to dry up, and community members are left wondering about what happens to Libby. One thing is clear: the future will not resemble the past, when the town relied heavily on the timber and mining industries.
“The town needs a coat of paint. We need to get some more energy going downtown. We need to get more businesses moving in,” said Bob Henline, board president of the Libby Chamber of Commerce.
EPA remedial project manager Mike Cyrian said he only needs to clean up about 125 properties and investigate 190, most of which likely won’t need to be cleaned. March 31 marked the last day that people could apply for property inspections.
At its peak, the EPA hired about 250 workers, including sample crews, removal crews, restoration crews and design and drafting engineers. More recently, there has been about 100 workers on site.
“We’re on our last call,” Cyrian said.
The EPA investment amounts to about $10 million per year. When that goes away, Henline said the economy will feel it.
“That’s a lot of money for a town this size,” he said. “You have local businesses that have grown accustomed to having that spending. You have hotels, restaurants, supply houses, subcontractors. It’s going to be a tough one to absorb.”
Kristen Smith, co-owner of the Cabinet Mountain Brewing Company and a city councilmember, said transitioning away from a single-employer, boom-and-bust economy will be important. She imagines “a robust economy and a very diverse economy.”
One step in that vision is to revitalize downtown. Mineral Avenue, what Henline calls “The Gut,” has come to life with shops opening up in previously empty storefronts: a new ice cream spot, a newly expanded dollar store and a new clothing shop.
Acting as a catalyst for this is Cabinet Mountain Brewing, which has become a gathering spot for community members and visitors alike.
“The more people build on it (downtown revitalization), the better it is for everybody,” Smith said. “I think it’s working and people are excited about it.
Many imagine that recreation and tourism will play a big role in Libby’s future. Raines claimed the Cabinet Mountain Wilderness, which hugs the town on all sides, is comparable to Glacier National Park, except trail-goers don’t have to share with over 2 million annual visitors. Various groups are at work promoting and building new mountain bike, horseback riding, cross country skiing and snowmobile trails.
“That’s really one of our biggest assets here is the access we have to public land here,” Raines said.
Raines said he had no delusions that Libby was going to become the next Whitefish. Rather, improving access to outdoor recreation would make the town a more desirable place to live, attracting a broad range of people -- people who might start a new business, pioneer new community efforts or contribute to the economy in one form or another.
“The more we can do to promote what we have to offer is going to go a long way in Libby’s future,” Raines said.
'It’s really odd because nothing has changed in Libby, except for $500 million getting dumped into it.'
Gayla Benefield is a resident of Libby, Montana. She worked with Seattle Post's Andrew Schneider on a story that drew world-wide attention to the asbestos-ridden town. Photo by Katy Spence
Other efforts include rebranding, job recruitment, filling up the town’s Business Park and building a new railroad spur.
Some are skeptical that these visions will pan out into concrete job creation. Lincoln County, where Libby resides, has an employment rate of 10.2 percent, the second highest in the state.
One critic is Bill Payne, the 82-year-old owner of Payne Machinery, a heavy equipment repair shop and parts distributor. He’s been running his business since 1969 and has seen the ebb and flow of industries in the community.
He’s not sure Libby can thrive without a major employer, and he’s not sure a major employer will make it’s way to the region. He blamed environmentalism for stymying business recruitment and the town’s continuing economic struggles.
“In the 1980s, environmentalism raised its head, and for reasons unknown to me, it became the power force in this area,” he said.
At first, he thought the movement would just blow over. After all, logging and milling have been the mainstays of Libby’s economy for over a hundred years. But soon, restrictions on timber sales were enforced, and it went from a town with several lumber mills, to a town with zero. Stimson closed down the last mill in 2002, laying off 200 people.
Even if the timber industry came back to Libby, it wouldn’t be the same, said Henline.
“It still wouldn’t employ a quarter of the people. Technology has changed so dramatically. Instead of guys with axes you’re talking about chainsaws and machines and higher production capacity,” Henline said. “Those days are behind us and it’s sad, but time moves forward and we have to adjust with it.”
Efforts to bring in new mines have been tangled up by environmental bureaucracy. The latest, a proposed copper and silver mine that promises to bring in several hundred jobs, has been stuck in permitting limbo for over a decade.
“We need to get away from the mentality that one employer’s going to save us and figure out how we’re going to use the benefits of any employer, or any situation, to further develop the town itself,” Henline said.
Throughout the years, Payne has seen his competitors fall off one by one as a result of losses in the timber and mining industries. Even though his business is one of the only heavy equipment repair shops in the area, he’s not sure Payne Machinery can last much longer.
At its peak, his business employed 22 people and pulled in $2.25 million in gross sales. Now, there are just seven employees and the business makes about $1 million. Profits have declined each of the last four years and Payne has only managed to keep things going by getting creative: reaching out to customers beyond Lincoln County and dropping fire insurance and liability insurance.
Payne said he’s not sure what he will do with his business. He tried selling it in 2007, but no one expressed interest. It’s a niche business in a dying market.
“I’ve lost enthusiasm,” he said.
The Flathead Community College Lincoln County branch is often at the forefront of retraining workers. They helped train people in hazmat for asbestos cleanup. They trained a number of workers for a large welding company that came to town in 2009, then closed in 2013.
At the moment, though, there’s no big employer in sight, said campus director Chad Shilling. He wasn’t sure what opportunities there will be for people who lose their contract jobs through the EPA. Either they find work elsewhere -- he’s seen people find jobs in road construction and go to North Dakota to land a job in the natural gas industry -- or they get creative.
“That’s what guys have done. They’ve gone from being loggers to owning a lawn mowing business,” he said. “Everyone is trying to find their own little niche.”
Back at Benefield’s house, a thunderstorm made a dark night sky darker. Thick globs of rain started splattering against the windows. Lighting flashed.
Benefield said that the worst of asbestos is in the rear-view mirror. The EPA cleaned up what it could. People are still dealing with the long-term health consequences, but the health care has gotten better, she said. Mesothelioma, a lung cancer which can be linked to asbestosis, is no longer a death sentence. It can be caught and treated early.
These days, people can turn their attention toward the future. On that matter, she is straightforward:
“It’s a tourist town,” she said. “There’s no real industry to speak of, but it is something they are going to have to learn to live with. I mean really, they are just going to have to sell Libby, it’s a nice place.”